Sunday, 20 September 2015


Two years ago I went to see Tom Randall for an assessment. I told him I wanted to climb Supercool, and even I could see at the time that that was an unrealistic goal. The hardest I'd climbed was a 7c, the year before, and it'd taken four or five sessions to even do all the moves, then another four or five to redpoint it.

It was an amazing route, Polifemo, still one of the best I've climbed, with a very reachy crux - but nevertheless, a long way from 8a+.

Not one to discourage, however, Tom wrote a year long training plan to bring me closer to Supercool. I was super psyched. And then, four days into the plan and three days after my summer holiday had stared, I snapped both bones in my lower leg in what felt like a devastating blow.

Aside from the impact on my climbing, it rocked my student life: I was starting the final year of my degree, and I was stuck at home in bed. I lost my part-time job, because I couldn't move around easily. I missed my "day-to-day" friends: the people you don't know that well but that you see regularly and chat to and that become a surprisingly large part of your life.

I didn't even know Tom: I'd met the guy once and paid him to do an assessment. And yet high as a kite and feeling very lonely in LGI he seemed like the obvious person to email.

"Tom... Everything's f**ked"

As I started to recover, Tom used his wisdom to translate the training plan from 3D to 2D, and so I trained on a fingerboard for several months. It was a period of time which if you were bored enough to read the entire blog can be summarised as fairly miserable and took every ounce of motivation I could summon.

It was also a period of my life during which I was very dependent on my boyfriend Alistair, without whom I would never have achieved what I did academically - nor would I have been able to train. I know that at times this was incredibly stressful for Alistair, both emotionally based on the impact it had on our relationship but also in terms of juggling this with his own career. However, I will be forever grateful for all his care, love and support.

When I started to climb again, I battled a combination of leg pain and fear as I tried to remember why I loved it. 18 months after the accident, I still felt like things would never be the same. I was crippled by fear and I was surprised that I could still be feeling the physical effects.  Even two months ago, things were much that way. Tom suggested I climb Aberration as it was a similar style to Supercool, albeit sideways rather than up. I still keep finding knew things that I didn't realise I could do until it hurt too much to do them, usually relating to heel hooks, and I still do certain things in stupid ways because I can't do them the way other people do (or the way they're set).

I was both surprised that I climbed Aberration so quickly and kind of disappointed that I wasn't excited as I felt like I should be. I thought that I'd be super excited about climbing my first 8a, but then when I did it it felt like I'd passed the point where it was the hardest I could climb. It wasn't magic like Polifemo.

During August I was trying Supercool at weekends while working down South during the week (in Henley-on-Thames, no less). I was starting to get close to doing it, but it kept raining, and I was really tired, and I could just never get a good session on it. I started to get very frustrated. Towards the end of August, Jules Pearson redpointed the route and spent the following week sending me weather updates. I was pitifully grateful to her as I'd developed an unhealthy addiction to the weather forecast (I'm getting help for it).

Jules is really cool, but she doesn't realise how good she is so she's very unassuming, very down to earth and awesome to climb with. And it was nice to be rooting for each other as I rarely seem to be projecting things at the same time as someone else (I remember with Polifemo everyone just kept flashing it).

The day I climbed the route was the Sunday of the August bank holiday, and I think it was really because I'd spent most of the Saturday snoozing. I was knackered from my crash introduction to the watch industry in Henley and all the commuting that had gone with it. I didn't feel amazing, but it's the sort of route where you don't have to feel super strong, as long as you just keep going and rest where it's appropriate. Nevertheless, when I pulled through the final crux onto the somewhat technical head wall I was terrified. Like Jules the week before, I knew that it would be all too easy to slip on a smear and fall off.

Somehow I topped out though and for a sport route it felt incredibly profound. Goredale itself is an awesome place, and many rainy and oppressive days there (not to mention the odd falling rock from the sheep at the top) have given me a healthy fear of the place. I didn't feel like celebrating, I just felt happy to be there. A tourist later summed it up when I was explaining what we were doing with "It must be the most wonderful feeling". Sitting there, in the cave, looking at the beautiful view was very inspiring. It finally felt like all the pain and effort of the last two years no longer defined my climbing, as though achieving the goal I set before I broke my leg and overcoming the fear in order to do so had freed me of some of the mental hang-ups I had.

The next day, Alistair climbed the route in a poetic team send. I doubt we'll ever share a project again, as we normally have very different climbing styles, but it was a fun team send!

We felt that the route deserved a video, so we went back for this:

Wednesday, 29 July 2015


Last Saturday was gloriously sunny and warm. After teaching the ridiculous kitten about grass in the garden, I headed out into the peak district with Mr Austin the Psyche Machine to try Aberration, at two-tier.

Batting the bauble, a long term climbing goal

Popping around

Ed was keen to steal all of my beta while I was hoping to steal his psyche. This worked well both ways. I confessed to Ed that he was one of the few people I had climbed with other than Alistair since breaking my leg and that I was scared. 

In actual fact, Ed seemed supremely confident that I would not be scared. Which in many ways, was actually really reassuring.

We arrived at the crag and elected not to wait for Squiff and Hannah (scumbag Lisa and Ed) as we were impatient. At this point I also realised that in being organised and remembering flip-flops for wading the river, I had in fact forgotten to wear real shoes. It turns out that using flip flops in sloping mud is actually an achievement in itself.

As we walked along the Monsal trail, it started to rain. However, we ignored it and it got bored and went away again. At the base of the crag, a fruitful bargain was made whereby a cup of coffee was exchanged for a banana (see what I did there?) before we warmed up bolt-to-bolt (because in spite of the fact that two-tier actually has warm-ups, warming up is something I frequently forget exists on british limestone).

Thanks Ed for the photos :)

As I'd already had a couple of sessions on the route, I pretty much knew what I was doing. I had a redpoint go just before the sun came around, but fell off on what is essentially the crux move. However, the next go didn't go quite so well. It had got considerably warmer and it felt like it was necessary to pull a lot harder: as a result I fell off going for the crux hold.

I came down and decided to sulk for a bit: I thought I'd do that, have a coffee, then have a training go. So, on my final go of the day I started up the route, complaining about how warm the rock was. But by the time I was about 8 moves in, it seemed to be cooling down slightly. Without really thinking about it I stuck the move and then romped onwards to the final sketchy move. Embedding my sweaty fingertips into the crimp (sorry, next person), I rocked over and prayed... and stayed on.

I think what I was proudest about was the fact that I'd felt so confident above the clips - the top is easy, but slippery in the sun - and I know that not long ago I would have been terrified. I'm super psyched to do some more climbing and training now and I hope the sun keeps warming my holds!

Nearly there :)

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Clip by Clip

While reading about ways to deal with fear in climbing, I read something about how we don't expect to keep strength gains if we only train once a month, so we shouldn't expect to keep mental gains if we only train very occasionally.

On the face of it, this seems obvious: most of us in the UK boulder in the colder months and only get out our ropes each summer. Usually, there's a transition phase where different people feel varying levels of fear before returning to last year's level of confidence. In the same way that a 6a climber will need to train more to climb a 7a than a 6c climber, a very scared person will need to train more to climb fluently on lead than someone who is simply a little rusty.

But how can you combine fear training with training training without the two impacting each other? And where do you start?

I guess fundamentally you need to work towards the thing you'll actually be doing. For me, that's currently sport climbing on british limestone. For that to be ok, you need to be happy first leading (probably indoors), then happy standing on slippery limestone, then happy leading between the (occasionally quite spaced) bolts.

I found that the best time to start training my head indoors was warming up. Though initially I was skeptical about the value of fall training by letting go, I think it helps to normalise the feeling of falling. Although it's very artificial, jumping of big holds above a bolt on an overhang indoors is a quick and relatively safe way to learn to fall and I found that I wasn't really able to try on harder routes because I wasn't ready for unexpected falls.

When endurance training on routes I found that I preferred top-roping as I hated the pressure of trying to achieve PBs whilst also being brave: I much preferred to separate the two achievements. So I would do some fall training and then train as normal. Once I'd gained some confidence, the training actually motivated me to push my fear boundaries, but in the early days I wasn't ready to tackle the fear.

I also started doing some outdoor sessions that were focussed entirely on fear. The goal was simply to try, above a bolt. The day was a success if I reached the desired point on the climb and nearly fell off, or if I fell off. Though it felt like a big jump in difficulty, I resorted to the old favourite - jumping off slightly above the clip, then higher.

I have a long way to go with the outdoor leading, but I'm really amazed that I've made it to the point where I'm enjoying climbing outdoors. I'd kind of given up on getting back to where I was but I don't think I could ever have dreamed of getting this far. After breaking my leg I trained out of obstinancy, and because I call myself a climber, and then as physical recovery progressed I realised I didn't really have any goals any more. I didn't know what I was training for and I didn't really want to climb anything in particular.

For a long time I wasn't sure I would ever get my desire to climb back. And at that point my motivation to train started to slip too... because what's the point if you don't really like climbing? The fear I felt on the rock overcame any enjoyment. But a couple of months ago, after weeks of head training that didn't really seem to be progressing, everything fell into place. It was one of those rare but glorious moments when you see all of your efforts come to light: I felt so much more confident and happy while climbing.

Now leg pain has ceased to be a limiting factor in my climbing, and fear is becoming much less of one. It seemed appropriate to change the name of this blog accordingly: thus I removed the "a recovery". The result seems worryingly egotistical and yet I rather like it.  It is almost two years since I wrote the first post in an injury blog and it's only really now that I feel like I have started to overcome said injury. As with any significant climbing injury (or sports injury) it has massively changed my perspective on climbing, and my motivations. However, overall, I think they have changed for the better. I'm no less motivated but perhaps more forgiving of myself. I'm no less brave but I'm definitely less rash. And I'm no less psyched, but I think I'm more passionate for the fight.

Two years ago, I would have said "Of course I'll get back there!"

One year ago I thought "I'll never get back to where I was, and I'll never really enjoy climbing again".

Now, I'm not there - but I'm happy to be here instead :)

The limestone is calling!

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Fear of falling: Dare I admit it?

It's been the source of much confusion to me that, after breaking my leg bouldering indoors, I'm having so much trouble leading outdoors. I've been terrified climbing routes I should be warming up on. Routes that if I fell off, I should be laughing at the mistake rather than being frustrated that I fell off.

But I can't fall off.

As someone who never really felt fear, I've never really confronted this issue and perhaps this is where I went so wrong. For the first three years of my climbing I used to climb in the summer, ditch climbing in the winter and then start again in the summer. Each year, leading outdoors would feel a bit nerve-wracking at first but then it would be fine. Then almost exactly four years after I started climbing, I had a bouldering accident and my outlook on risk taking changed. Probably irreversibly. I think that most of us become naturally more scared as we grow up, but after an injury-free childhood this was my first (brutal) introduction to the idea that I didn't bounce as well as I thought.

If you're wondering, I'm talking about sport climbing here. Not trad, sport climbing. As in, climbing clipping bolts. Bolts which are 2 metres apart, on overhangs.

Worse still, I'm getting to the point where I'm starting to boulder more normally (OK, not at the top, but then you'd understand my reservations there). And until now, I'd not realised how much being scared could hold me back. Because I can't try moves: in fact I can't even move, I'm terrified.

Often this even happens on a top-rope. But until recently, I've always been able to use the injury as an excuse. Perhaps that's why bouldering is going better for me? I'm allowed to down climb. And outdoors, I'm very tactical about the problems I choose! But sport climbing, that's different. And here I have a confession to make: regarding being scared of falling off routes, I've always been well and truly cocky. Sure, I'd never say it out loud. But I've often thought "why don't you just try?". People who top-rope for convenience, that I understood. But I could never understand why people would try to lead and say "take" as soon as the probability of catching the next hold wasn't 1.

And now I'm sorry for thinking that way: I never realised how hard it could be to be genuinely, paralytically scared of falling off. Nor did I realise that to overcome that, you have to admit it in the first place. And that to admit it, you have to deal with people like me!

Imagine my consternation: my fear was taking six grades off my climbing, I was so scared of falling off sport climbing that I couldn't even look at a route without worrying about the places that I couldn't see clearly exactly how I was going to do the move in advance. Bearing in mind that I'm currently climbing in Kalymnos (where the bolts are excellently situated and all the routes that I am climbing have been climbed many, many times) that is simply not rational. When scoping out a trad route (or a slate sport route!) maybe. But not here.

Not only that, but in judging myself, I'd had to admit that my previous opinion on fear of falling was based on a complete lack of empathy and that I'd had no idea what I was talking about and was just lucky that I'd never been scared. Since I started climbing again I've experienced varying levels of fear while leading (and indeed top-roping). It became clear last week that was no point having goals for a climbing trip when I couldn't even try moves on a top-rope without being turned into a gibbering wreck: how was I ever going to enjoy climbing again? I needed to drop the grade, but not so far that I wouldn't fall off. I needed to start again.

I realised also that to truly beat the fear of falling off forever, you might well have to climb for all eternity. That sometimes it will be easy and sometimes it will be impossibly hard. I've started to work out the fine line between making progress, and pushing yourself so hard that you're traumatised. But it's worth it I think. Because the thing about fear is that it rarely goes away by itself. It feeds on insecurities and it takes away the joy of the activity and usually, it only grows as time goes on.

I think that trying to lead at my on-sight limit this trip has produced mixed results: at times, I've felt better than I felt before I broke my leg. At other times, I've had to take my quickdraws out and back off a route, unable to bring myself to complete it. But if I'm being completely honest with myself, I was starting to doubt whether I really enjoyed climbing at all. The fear totally eclipsed the love of the movement. By letting go of the idea of what I should be achieving and facing the battle head on I've had fleeting moments of feeling the way I used to feel when completely consumed by a route. I have started to believe that there's good in climbing, after all.

I could never have imagined how extensive the emotional and psychological effects of a bouldering accident could be. But I'm tired of being ashamed of my fear. Lots of people are scared sport climbing for lots of different reasons. Lots of people aren't: maybe they're lucky, maybe they worked through it.

It doesn't matter if the danger isn't real, the fear is and it can be hugely debilitating. It can also be humiliating, and sometimes I'll find myself crying on a warm up route and I'll be absolutely mortified. Working through it will involve lots of leading, and lots of safe falls. I'm sure I'll doubt that there's any point and at times I'll go backwards but I hope that I'll reap the rewards in my climbing.

Although it takes motivation, in some ways, it's not hard to train. I'm motivated and young. I've always been in control of exactly how much and when I train. This is different: this is a part of me that I don't understand. But I've finally understood that it won't be any less of an achievement than getting stronger.